Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fiction #73: Carole Glasser Langille

Prepared

Not only had I escaped an unhappy marriage, but I’d found a great place to live. The living room and kitchen in the old farmhouse were sunny late into the afternoon. It was peaceful living in the country after years in the city. My ex was paying child support which covered rent. 

But walls in the old farmhouse weren’t insulated and I couldn’t afford to heat the place. To help with the cost of oil, I posted an ad to rent one of the rooms. Harrison was the first to respond.

After he looked through the house I showed him the large yard where the previous renters had grown a vegetable garden. My sons Seamus and Dan had just gotten back from elementary school and were playing by the plum tree which, I was told, had a good yield of green plums in season.

He was enthusiastic and for a young man of twenty-four, declared something surprising, he was neat. He was a cello student and practiced long hours. Would that be a problem? I didn’t think so. I liked the sound of cello, even when someone was practicing scales. The fluid, sliding, ancient-river sound was comforting.

After washing his breakfast dishes each morning, Harrison usually didn’t return until evening and cooked his meal after we ate ours.  He was gone Friday through Sunday. He’d mentioned his girlfriend was a flute player and I assumed he spent weekends with her.  

One weeknight I invited him to join us for supper. Afterward he washed the dishes and this became a pattern during the week. I’d cook, we’d eat together, he’d clean. He made me laugh. Once, when I asked him whose piece he was studying he said, “Saint-Saens. You know, one of the famous French composers everyone loves and no one listens to.”

Dan, who had just turned eleven, asked if he could watch Harrison practice cello and soon Harrison was giving him lessons. He set up the cello in the living room and I’d listen as I made lunch for the boys for the following day. “This is the body of the cello, these are the ribs, the scroll, the neck.”  Harrison’s voice was patient. He sounded a bit like my kid brother, gentle yet commanding. “The left knee disappears behind the lower edge of the instrument.”  He bowed each string telling Dan the names as he did:  ADGC. Then Dan bowed them.

Because he drove to class, he shovelled the driveway when it snowed. One Saturday I came downstairs and, looking out the window, saw Harrison and Dan and Seamus making a snowman on the front lawn. I was surprised to see Harrison on a Saturday. Seamus came in for a carrot to use as a nose. He was seven and this was the first snowman he’d made. I’d been remiss in the snowman department. 

From time to time Harrison read picture books we had around the house to the boys but soon he began reading The Hobbit to them, the three huddled on the couch. This became a routine the boys looked forward to. When he finished, they demanded another right away.

“We can begin a new book,” he said, “but only fifteen minutes each night. I need to finish what I’m reading.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The Kelavala, a Finnish book.” He turned to the boys, “Which is probably why it is taking so long to finish.”  My children loved spending time with Harrison.

Sometimes, when the kids were in bed, and Harrison stopped practicing, he’d ask if I wanted a beer. I didn’t drink during the week. Getting the boys to school and me to work was all I could manage, without throwing beer into the mix. I was a secretary at the town council office but I was also taking a course to prepare for the MCAT’S and this took all my time. My ex was a doctor and I’d become convinced over the years that I could do a better job. It was a ridiculous plan; I found math and chemistry challenging, but my ex was no genius. I thought, if I fail I fail. I didn’t know, then, that it wasn’t failure I had to prepare for.

I told Harrison about the incident that made me want to become a doctor. My ex had a  patient in his teens who was on dialysis and had to be driven to the hospital three times a week. I knew who the guy’s mother was; she worked as a secretary in my sons’ school. When her son got older he insisted he drive himself. Also, he wanted to stay on his own when she went away from time to time. One weekend she was visiting her sister and agreed to leave him alone in the house. He was in his early twenties by then. As it turned out, he’d skipped his first appointment, and then became too groggy to drive when his next dialysis appointment was scheduled. He was dead by the time she returned.

It was the most upsetting thing I’d ever heard and even though I was only a distant acquaintance I went over to the mother’s house as soon as I heard. She said she would never forgive herself. We talked for hours. When I got home, my husband was back from work and I told him where I’d been.

He couldn’t believe I’d gone to be with her.

“How could I not go?” I asked.

“I’m glad you did,” he said. “It’s just that, I could never become so close to a patient.”

When I first married, I believed my husband’s detachment allowed him to work despite difficult odds. But the more I got to know him I realized detachment was his only suit. He wasn’t much else there.

“How did you meet him?” Harrison asked. He’d poured himself a glass of wine, and one for me. Since it was Friday, I allowed myself one glass.

“I was a secretary for a doctor in Yellowknife,” I said, “and he was a medical student, doing a practicum.”

“Yellowknife? Were men hitting on you all the time?”

“Actually, yes,” I said and laughed. He reminded me so much of my kid brother. Even Harrison’s voice was like my brother’s, so quiet. I often had to ask Harrison to repeat what he’d said. “There are a lot more men than women in that place. But the situation was not so simple.”

Harrison didn’t say anything so, after a while, I continued. Once this guy asked me out and I said no.  I saw him again later that week and he said, Look, I’m away at the rigs most of the time, and I don’t get a lot of time off. I just want to take you to dinner.

“That’s all you want?” I asked, sceptical.

“Yes,” he said, “I’ll pay you to take you out.”

“That’s okay,” I said, “You don’t have to pay me. We went to a restaurant and he was true to his word.”

“Some men mean what they say,” Harrison said.

The following Saturday Harrison suggested we go his friend Kevin’s concert in a theatre downtown. The kids would enjoy it, he said. They did. Kevin sang old hits, “Time after Time”, “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”, “Sweet Dreams,” songs on my old CDs the kids and I had listened to at home, but Kevin used only his cello to accompany him.  He had a looping pedal, which he’d press with his foot to add layers of melody digitally. The starkness of cello for rhythm and melody, and the unique sound of this instrument to accompany familiar songs, was mesmerizing.

On the way home Dan asked if I would buy him a cello. I told him if he was serious he should talk to his father. Renting a cello would be a good start.

A chemistry exam was coming up and I wanted to study with one of the better students in class. I asked Harrison if he would mind watching the boys Saturday night. I suggested he invite his girlfriend over.

“I’ll watch the boys,” he said.

I thanked him again before I left. I had on cowboy boots, black tights, and a narrow sleeveless dress, which I’d gotten at a thrift shop. It was pale grey and I wore a long brown sweater over it, which I might take off if the apartment was overheated.  Chemistry was difficult for me, and I thought I could fool myself into thinking the evening was festive if I dressed like I was celebrating.

Harrison said, “You wear that to study? Or do you especially like the guy you’re studying with?”

“I’m studying with a woman,” I said. “I like to dress up sometimes.”

“Ah, you like wearing costumes, I’ve noticed. And you like changing roles.” He laughed.

He might be right, I thought.

When I returned later that night, Harrison and the boys were in the middle of a rousing game of monopoly. Seamus had a hotel on boardwalk. I wondered how Harrison had engineered that. Later I asked if his girlfriend had come by. He shook his head.

“I’d love to meet her,” I said. Then, embarrassed, I wondered if they’d broken up.

It had been a long time since I’d cooked an elaborate meal, and I invited two couples, close friends of mine, for dinner Saturday. One couple, Phillip and Karo, had gotten jobs in another town and were moving at the end of the month, though the move wasn’t far. This was a congratulatory dinner for them, of sorts. I had strawberries and rhubarb in my freezer and a recipe for strawberry rhubarb pie I wanted to try.  When Harrison came home that Saturday I invited him to join us. I’d already served the boys, who were upstairs watching a movie.

At first I thought Harrison probably wouldn’t want to spend the evening with a bunch of middle-aged people like us but he clearly enjoyed talking with my friends.  Bernadette, Gene’s wife, and Gene, who I’d known since college days, asked Harrison if he would play a piece for us.  Phillip and Karo urged him to play as well so Harrison got out his cello and played Bach prelude number 1. Though it is such a familiar piece, I was stirred by how beautiful it is. It was good of him to play.  He probably felt as if he were performing for his parents.  

*

That night, when I went to use the washroom, he was just coming out, wearing only his pyjama bottoms. I blushed. He was so tan and fit.

When Harrison moved out, to get a place closer to town, a female student, Natasha, moved in a week later. I hadn’t realized the room would be so easy to rent.  Natasha was also neat but she kept to herself. The house felt strangely quiet now that there was no  cello music coming from the second floor.

When I gave another dinner party and asked Natasha if she wanted to join us, she declined. Though later, when the guests had gone, she accepted the last piece of pecan pie.

*

Then Harrison called. I was surprised to hear from him. He was graduating in a few months, and was told he had a good chance of getting into the graduate program. I was happy for him. There was a brief silence. Then he asked if I’d like to go out to dinner.

At first I wasn’t sure I’d heard him and when he repeated the invitation I asked, “With you and your girlfriend? To celebrate?” I felt like the older sister and I wanted to make sure I understood him.

“Of course not,” he said. “You and me.”

This was awkward. Harrison was 24. I was eleven years older and had two kids. Did he think I wanted to date as if I were a co-ed? I thanked him but said I wasn’t able to go.

A few weeks later he came by, when the kids were still up and the boys persuaded him to read a chapter of Lord of the Rings, which I’d started with them a few weeks earlier. I felt awkward with Harrison. Was he here to ask me out again? It simply wasn’t appropriate. I could not look him in the eye.

He stayed until after the boys were in bed and then suggested we go to dinner next Friday or Saturday. Could I get a sitter, he asked. I took a deep breath.

“Harrison, thank you. I am flattered by your invitation. But you are too young for me.” I did not like having to say this, but I needed to make things clear. Even if there hadn’t been an age disparity, I didn’t trust myself. I’d already made one mistake, and it took me long enough to free myself from that one. I just wanted to stay focused on my kids and move ahead with my studies.   

He did not come around after that and stopped phoning. I thought I would not see him again. But I was wrong.

Karo called to ask if I could help her pack Saturday. She and Phillip were moving the following week and friends were coming by to pitch in. The boys were spending the weekend with their father and I told her I’d be glad to help.  My car was being repaired so she picked me up Saturday morning.

When we got there I was surprised to see Harrison helping along with the others.  Had he become a friend of theirs as well? Apparently so.

I had on red jeans and an orange sleeveless top, both from a thrift shop. Harrison greeted me. Later he said, “I can see those colours give you energy. They energize me just looking at them.” I laughed. He was right; that was why I chose them.

We’d finished packing and loading boxes into the U Haul and were drinking the last of the beer when Harrison said he’d give me a lift home. We were quiet on the drive and as he pulled into the driveway I was debating whether to ask him in for coffee. Then of course I did. This was Harrison, after all.

As I was putting biscuits on a plate, he said, “You know, you are a very rigid woman.”

I do not consider myself rigid. I asked him what he meant.

“Just because you have this idea that I am too young for you, you will not even give me a chance.
And that is pretty inflexible, wouldn’t you say?”

Who did he think he was, analyzing me?  I left the room. But he didn’t.

When I returned I asked him why he was still there.

“What are you afraid of?” he asked. “You know, if you keep going the way you’re going, you’ll...” He paused. Then he said, “No.”  He turned and mumbled, “Goodbye” as he  walked out the door.

What was I afraid of?  Look, one umbrella is too unsteady for two people to hold in a wind storm. Harrison might think he was interested in me now, but interest fades. I had enough to worry about without adding complications. After working my butt off for two years, would I get into medical school, much less be able to cope if I did? What I didn’t want to ask, not even in the hidden chamber of the heart I assumed I still had, would I live the rest of my life on this obstacle course I set up for myself and which I found increasingly difficult to navigate.  I supposed  obstacle course was another way of describing being rigid, wasn’t it? 

When I applied to medical school a year later, I got in. I was thirty-seven. My confidence came, in part, because Harrison had faith in me.

He still does.  Perhaps I should end this story before I disclose that we married the spring I got my acceptance letter.  Because happiness, I‘d always assumed, was a rare thing and  harder to believe in than disappointment. But we did marry, and for the past twenty-three years I’ve been practicing medicine in the neighbouring town and he’s been playing in the symphony.

When we married, I designed a wedding ring of three bands of gold – white, rose and yellow. The bands are very thin – a symbolic gesture. Thin bands break easily. I thought I’d better be prepared in case the marriage failed.  But I was wrong. Failure was not what I had to prepare myself for.

*


Carole Glasser Langille is the author of four books of poetry, two collections of short stories and two picture books. Her last book, I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are,  a collection of linked stories, was nominated for the Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction.

Read Carole on why she loves short stories.

Photo credit: Min Chen.

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